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Saved by the bubble: The ironies of a prime minister propelled by miracles

Prime Minister Scott Morrison holds a press conference at Parliament House on Thursday. Picture: Elesa Kurtz
Prime Minister Scott Morrison holds a press conference at Parliament House on Thursday. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

There are ironies aplenty in the social bubbles that have saved Australia from the first wave of the coronavirus and that are shaping the legacy of the accidental Prime Minister, the one we could all live with as opposed to the one anyone wanted.

A year ago on Monday, when Scott Morrison declared his belief in miracles, he apparently surprised even himself with his election success. And he went straight to the bubble.

"The bubble certainly popped on Saturday night," he told one of his intimate coterie of talkback radio hosts, referring to the inward-looking "bubble" of pundits and pollsters who predicted his demise, as opposed to his favoured "quiet Australians".

The quiet Australians are a definitional conundrum at the best of times, but the concept reflects Morrison's awareness of the power of a slogan and the political success you can wring from defining a group and calling them to arms - dividing a country into elites and ordinary knockabout true-blues. Menzies had his forgotten people and Howard his battlers; Trump has his deplorables. It's a technique, and an effective one. Morrison has exploited this divisive narrative regularly as he introduces himself as "Scomo" and talks about mullet-sporting champion "J-Rod down in Launceston", "Johnsy at Sporties" (a "legend at his local footy club"), or "Wazza" (the "plumber down in the shire").

Morrison warmed to his theme last year, repeatedly dismissing the "Canberra bubble", and the irony now is that the at-home bubbles that Australians have been occupying, and where Morrison has been holed up with his family in the Lodge surrounded by medical and scientific experts, is where Morrison has had his biggest political success.

Unusually, Morrison's standing slumped in his first crisis - the bushfires. But the coronavirus gave him the chance to redeem himself.

Despite his talent for a slogan - the quiet Australians, the Canberra bubble, how good is Australia, boots on the ground, planes in the air, back in black, and, most recently, slip slop slap the app - Morrison's success has also coincided with him putting on his serious hat and setting aside the pithy three-worders.

The lesson that the message must match the mood was brought home by British agriculture minister Selwyn Gummer's decision in 1990 to eat a burger with his four-year-old daughter on telly in the midst of the mad cow crisis, with the untenable aim of demonstrating that British beef was safe. If you tell people beef is safe when they have reason for doubt, you have lost them - a lesson Boris Johnson could have done with as he shook hands in the coronavirus ward, and one Trump failed to heed as the virus swept into America.

Morrison was out of step in this way again and again in his first nine months as Prime Minister, resorting to deflection, bluff and glibness and in the process earning only derision.

Did you seek to have your friend, Hillsong pastor Brian Houston, invited to the White House? "I don't comment on gossip," he bluffed in September.

He spent October, as farmers became more desperate about the drought, explaining that the government was already doing plenty.

He spent November explaining why he was resisting calls for stimulus spending to halt the economic downturn that was forcing the Reserve Bank to cut interest rates to unprecedented lows and leaving wages in sadland.

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He spent December explaining why the federal government wasn't taking the tiller as the bushfires took hold.

"I don't hold a hose, mate," he deflected, after refusing to admit to Australians he had jetted off to Hawaii.

Will you co-ordinate a national response? "We already do." But is it working? "The state government gets everything they request."

Sydney is blanketed in smoke - but that's nothing new, he insists: "I do remember Sydney being ringed by fire in my lifetime. I remember as a young fellow being down at the beach and seeing smoke all around as I looked back out from the surf across the sand and I've seen it before."

Morrison handled political crises as unconvincingly as he handled natural crises. When Christopher Pyne waltzed into a private sector job connected with his area of ministerial responsibility, Morrison's departmental head wrote a report saying all was in order. When Angus Taylor paraded a false document to accuse the Sydney mayor of climate profligacy, Morrison didn't call his minister to account, and even phoned his "best friend", former neighbour and NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller to check how his inquiry into Taylor was going. The question became: did he and Fuller, as claimed in one of those matesy radio interviews, take out each other's bins?

After the bushfire crisis, you could be forgiven for thinking crisis management was not Scott Morrison's strong suit. Picture: Nine News

After the bushfire crisis, you could be forgiven for thinking crisis management was not Scott Morrison's strong suit. Picture: Nine News

So by the time the auditor rummaged in the filing cabinet to discover the unholy process the government had used to allocate sports grants before the last election, Morrison's modus operandi to deflect and downplay was familiar. His departmental head wrote a report that Morrison used to absolve himself and Bridget McKenzie of the central charge of using taxpayer money to sway votes in marginal seats. He lopped off the head of his minister on a technicality, wiped his hands clean and said nothing to see here.

Morrison's early legislative achievements include his tax cuts, the repeal of the asylum seeker medevac legislation - whose useful purpose was probably no more than signalling to the base at the expense of the people stuck offshore - and his crackdown on vegans "invading" farms in animal welfare protests, a pea-sized issue that was nevertheless one of the first items of business on his prime ministerial agenda. "I've got nothing against vegans", he said in his first interview, but was nevertheless "outraged" at their violent behaviour.

But he has to date been singularly unsuccessful in big-picture reforms. The Israel Folau religious freedom bill is stuck at second base, industrial relations reforms are still in the in-tray after the spectacular 11th-hour disintegration of his attempt at "union-busting" legislation when Pauline Hanson unexpectedly defected, the Indigenous "voice" to Parliament that was mis-messaged in the first weeks of the new government by Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt looks set for a long languishment, the federal integrity commission is something no one seems eager to do anything with, and the landmark Thodey review into the public service was almost entirely ignored by the government that commissioned it.

The man for the moment?

Now, though, nine months of half-truths, obfuscation and lagging behind the game have been set aside. In his response to the coronavirus crisis, Morrison finds himself in a commanding position - largely if not completely in front of events, straight in his language, and inclusive in embracing of scientists, medical experts and state and territory leaders.

The polls like him for this. The Australian's Newspoll tells us 56 per cent of people think Morrison would make the better prime minister, double the number who rate Anthony Albanese. The turnaround happened fast, with Albanese nosing in front of Morrison for the first time in February, when Morrison's bushfire response bit hardest. Morrison's net satisfaction rating sits at 40 per cent, higher than any leader since Kevin Rudd, who hit 57 per cent in the midst of the global financial crisis 12 years ago.

The Guardian's Essential Poll tells a similar story. Morrison's approval jumped from 39 per cent in February to 64 per cent in May. Malcolm Turnbull, for comparison, languished well below 40 per cent in the last two years of his prime ministership.

So was Morrison the man for the moment? Should we give thanks that he is our Prime Minister in this crisis? One way to tackle this question would be to ask: what would Turnbull have done? For that matter, what would Bill Shorten have done?

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Or has the moment shaped the man? The answer to this question will probably be revealed in the months to come, as we see whether Morrison resorts to form or adopts the lessons of leadership in a crisis.

An associate professor of politics at Monash University, Paul Strangio, says it will be some time before we can measure whether Morrison was the right leader.

Strangio, who has written deeply on political leadership since 1949, points to an assessment of wartime prime minister John Curtin, who historian Stuart Macintyre says would have been "a timid and mediocre prime minister in peacetime". "The occasion found the man," Macintyre said of Curtin.

Strangio, writing in The Conversation, says Morrison, the accidental prime minister, now seems destined to be a significant prime minister. But being significant is not the same as being successful. Strangio judges James Scullin to be as gifted as Curtin, but Scullin is typically ranked low in the pantheon, his leadership broken by the Great Depression.

"How skilfully his government manages the crisis and the recovery phase will be the true test," Strangio says.

Morrison's achievements in Parliament have been mixed - some ideological victories, but few big picture reforms. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Morrison's achievements in Parliament have been mixed - some ideological victories, but few big picture reforms. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Australian National University politics professor Ian McAllister, who leads a comprehensive study of public attitudes after each election, says the "rally around the flag effect" gives all crisis leaders an almost automatic bounce in support - as with Howard in the Bali bombings and Rudd in the global financial crisis.

"Normally a crisis is a bit of a gift for a politician because they can be empathetic, they can show themselves in charge .. you've got bipartisanship, all those sorts of things, so it's relatively rare for a politician not to perform well," he says.

Unusually, Morrison's standing slumped in his first crisis - the bushfires. But the coronavirus gave him the chance to redeem himself.

But McAllister says the goodwill is normally short-lived, just like post-election popularity, which leaders always lose - either rapidly in the case of Downer and Keating, or more slowly as for Howard and Rudd.

Morrison's bounce could last longer, given the coronavirus is set to be a drawn-out crisis, and it gives him the chance to take reformist policies to the next election - such as scrapping inefficient taxes and increasing the GST, McAllister says.

Crisis becomes opportunity

Radical reforms cannot be proposed from opposition. Labor's experience in the last election and Hewson's failed GST policy are cases in point, he says. But a government with trust that has performed well can make big changes from government, as Howard did when he introduced the GST.

Morrison has given hints he will seize this chance, saying he is "harvesting" the economic reports and advice of recent years to come up with settings for the post-virus economy. He's not "just dusting off old reports or old submissions ... and bowling them up again", but looking at them with fresh eyes. One of the key pieces of work due this year was the government's review of retirement income, looking at the compulsory superannuation level, taxes and pensions, and it is unclear to what extent that work has been delayed or altered by the pandemic.

At the same time, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is clear that measures will come firmly from the Coalition playbook, looking to its principles of personal responsibility and choice, rewarding effort and looking to the private sector not government for job creation. Morrison has responded to the coronavirus with no ideological constants, on Howard's advice, but the fundamentals of the Coalition's approach haven't changed.

La Trobe politics emeritus professor Judith Brett has described Howard as the Liberals' first "suburban" man, and says Morrison is the second. Menzies' forgotten people were the frugal home owners, the "middle-class backbone of the nation", the "salary earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers". Morrison positions himself somewhere here - well into what Brett describes as the groove etched by Howard. It is unclear, though, whether he is there by conviction or by deliberate positioning, given his expertise in messaging and keeping in mind Turnbull's depiction of him as "a highly pragmatic political professional". "It would be hard to find any political issue on which he appeared to have a deep or principled conviction," Turnbull writes in his new memoir.

Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg have instituted a massive program of stimulus spending to keep the economy alive during the COVID-19 pandemic. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg have instituted a massive program of stimulus spending to keep the economy alive during the COVID-19 pandemic. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

With that caveat in mind, Morrison's belief in small businesses, "the heroes of the Australian economy", has been a recurring theme of his prime ministership, and has driven his business-centric response to the crisis. It will also lead him on his route out of it. Industrial relations reform and company tax cuts remain on his agenda. Personal tax cuts might be a victim of the virus in the medium term - and are in any case not due until the election year, 2022 - but Morrison is committed to lower taxes, describing them in his first party room meeting post-election as "just a fundamental philosophy I have". "Jobs and jobs and jobs", he told the party room. "Without a strong economy, then all else is in vain."

Morrison was not offering interviews to mark one year from his miraculous ascension, but as he finds himself governing with blinding success from deep in the bubble, he will no doubt be looking back on the past 12 months with astonishment to match the rest of the country's.

He might also be shaking his head at the ironies, like this one from November, when he was pushed about why he wasn't spending to shore up the shaky economy.

We're not about "panic measures", "one-off cash splashes" or "sugar hits", the Prime Minister said, just weeks before he began frantically spilling cash into people's pockets to deal with crisis one and crisis two. "I mean, you don't run the country on DEFCON 1 the whole time."

This story Saved by the bubble: The ironies of a prime minister propelled by miracles first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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